The tech behind 'social-distance selling'

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Utah-based lifestyle store EmieJames lost about 80 per cent of sales during the pandemic with its doors forced closed, but as the state began to relax restrictions, virtual shopping appointments and kerbside pickup have kept the boutique in business and thriving.

Retailers are increasingly considering digital tools like these to navigate toward a “new normal” in which they can safely make sales to stay afloat. With e-commerce not making up the difference lost to lockdown, the technology offers a lifeline, especially for smaller, local stores that might not have a robust online presence.

New technologies can aid in “social-distance selling” by helping retailers limit physical contact, reduce time spent in stores, avoid large groups of people and even utilise stores to fulfil online orders. Some of these technologies are still unproven; others are in the early stages of adoption. But use cases suggest they can help retailers recoup sales and increase customer confidence. As of April, 89 per cent of shoppers had concerns about shopping in physical stores according to a survey by payments service Fast.

In-store analytics

While attracting more traffic used to be the goal, in-store analytics to identify gathering points and disperse them, says Greg Petro, CEO of retail predictive analytics firm First Insight. Heat maps, for example, provide digital representations of activity patterns; this can identify hot spots in a store and disperse popular merchandise and encourage one-way traffic flows. An occupancy counter, like one just introduced by AisleLab, counts the number of visitors in a space based on the number of mobile devices in a location and can limit visitors.

Petro also suggests “demand-sensing tech”, a forecasting method that can help brands understand consumer expectations when they return to stores. “The new environment shouldn’t be an experiment.”

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